Painter of iconic works of American genre, Richard Caton Woodville (1825–55) led a life of paradox. Born and raised in Baltimore, he produced most of his paintings in Europe, where he died at 30. Although he left behind fewer than 20 paintings, his images were widely known in his time through reproduction as premium prints. His humorous characterizations of contemporary life, realistic depictions of period interiors and use of narrative detail give viewers access to a fascinating period of American and European history.
From March 10 to June 2, 2013, in this first exhibition devoted to Woodville since 1967, Baltimore's Walters Art Museum's rich holdings and several key loans will be assembled to explore the formation, historical and social context, and contemporary reception of this engaging painter.
Woodville was celebrated in the art press of his time. The market for his art was primarily the American Art-Union, headquartered in New York, which was supported for a “patriotic purpose. . . the progress and elevation of American Art” by thousands of subscribers across the nation. Their appreciation of art was advanced by prints, Woodville’s among them, distributed as membership premiums. Tacked up on the walls of middle-class homes, prints after Woodville’s images enjoyed widespread distribution in a time when visual imagery was just then becoming widely available.
The Walters exhibition includes a number of new discoveries, such as a Portrait of Maria Johnston, the older friend who accompanied the artist and his young wife to Germany and who served as the model for the woman in the window of War News from Mexico. An unfinished Portrait of a Seated Woman was found tacked under a Self-Portrait given to the Walters by a descendant; a portrait of the artist’s first wife, Mary Buckler Woodville, by his instructor, the German painter Carl Ferdinand Sohn, is also included.
Woodville’s genius is to be seen not only in the clear-eyed and humorous observations of contemporary life of his paintings but also in their exquisite rendering. His works inspire close looking and interpretation of the myriad details, many likely created using magnification. Small in scale, they are filled with insightful studies of character, amusing interactions and implied narrative.